Atheist plaque combats Christmas display in MS: is this a good thing?

Jackson, MS is the among latest cities in the news that are having illegal Christmas displays challenged. FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has put one of their plaques in the Capitol building next to a nativity scene placed there by the Mississippi 9/11 Remembrance Association, according to WLBT.

Why would a 9/11 organization put up a nativity scene? The connection between 9/11 and this nativity scene is perhaps that both were organized by religious zealots… The comparison is a little unfair, perhaps. Obviously a nativity scene is not an act of terrorism, but it’s scary that religious people feel like they can do whatever they want just because it’s honoring their god.

There shouldn’t be Christmas displays or atheistic plaques in government buildings. I will admit that, although I support the FFRF, I am concerned that the expansion of the plaques into more cities might mean that it will become the norm or accepted to have Christmas displays, they will just be accompanied by “token” displays that include secular or non-Christian themes.

I think the plaques were originally meant to represent atheists but also as a deterrent (the language in it is strong and some might prefer there  to get rid of both the Christmas decorations and the plaque). I’m not sure it’s working, though. I do not object to the plaque’s message itself, although it isn’t the most positive of fronts to present to theists. But I vacillate on whether I think it is an effective strategy. If the plaque + Christmas scene precedent gets established, Christians will (mostly) get their way of having Christmas in state buildings around the country because they can then argue, “well, the atheists get their sign, too, so what’s the problem?” I want less religion in public places, not religion and atheism mixed.

Why can’t people just celebrate holidays on their own instead of forcing it on everyone in official areas? That pesky First Amendment again always trying to protect the rights of the minority where government is involved… Christmas is alive and well, in case Christians haven’t noticed. Aren’t the gazillion Christmas displays up in stores and private residences this time of year (bad) enough?!?! Hopefully eventually people will realize that religion is a private matter, but it doesn’t look like this will happen any time soon.

Images from WLBT.

The Good Friday Turtle stops by (while James Madison does a facepalm)

The yummy treats that the Good Friday Turtle (if he exists) might bring us next year!

Unlike Christmas and Easter, which unfortunately have become widely commercialized and somewhat secularized, Good Friday remains very unambiguously a religious holiday: specifically a Christian one. Very few people would claim that Good Friday is a secular holiday. There is no Good Friday Turtle that crawls around giving presents to good little girls and boys, no exchanging of Turtles chocolate and pecan candies, no TMNT marathons on TV, no playing of music from The Turtles (though “Happy Together” would make a nice holiday song!).

Although it’s nice to think about, no Virigina, there is no Good Friday Turtle. The only reason that someone would treat Good Friday differently than any other day is for religious reasons. It is a religious observance of the day that some guy named Jesus, who only some people believe was the son of their god, died on a cross before going to hell for a couple of days, after which he miraculously (magically) rose from the dead to go back to heaven. All this trouble just so daddy would agree to let some people up into heaven, while leaving the rest burn for all eternity.

Personally, and for the record, I like the Good Friday Turtle idea much better, but the Constitution says people have a right to believe that whole God-sent-his-son-to-be-tortured-to-death mumbo jumbo. The Constitution also tells us however that government cannot endorse one religion over another. So when the Shelby County Clerk in Tennessee reportedly closes on Good Friday, or the state of Wisconsin recognizes Good Friday as a holiday, these government entities certainly seem to be celebrating a Christian-only holiday.

So what’s the harm in these and other government agencies closing for Good Friday? What’s wrong with people having a day off or people having to wait until Monday to renew their licences? Giving this strictly religious holiday preferential treatment shows an official bias in favor of that religion (Christianity) over other religions or non-religion.

Despite what many religious folk claim, the founding fathers did not intend the US to be a Christian nation, unless you think the entire Constititional Convention did a collective facepalm once they realized they had accidentally left “The United States is a Christian nation” out of the Preamble. Doesn’t seem likely to me.


A photo of James Madison after realizing he and other founding fathers forgot to establish the United States as a Christian nation in the Constitution??

The country was intentionally founded with freedom of religion in mind. People may celebrate their religious holidays if they so please, but government is not and should not be involved. Holidays of other religions besides Christianity are generally not observed or usually even mentioned by government bodies, and this is the way it should be. An occasional nod to Jewish or Muslim holidays may occur, but they normally don’t shut down government just because some religion somewhere thinks a given day is important to their deity of choice. And that’s the way it should be.

Government agencies get around this issue for Christmas because it has now taken on a largely (if not predominately) non-religious life of its own. Few would dispute this fact, although many might justifiably object to it. The main objections to Christmas arise when government steps over the line and starts inserting Christian words and symbols into what has become a secular celebration. Easter has followed Christmas along the path to secularization to a lesser extent (with pagan and secular symbols such as the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps); but since most government agencies are closed on weekends anyway, the issue of officially recognizing Easter by closing offices normally doesn’t come up.

But when government or government-funded agencies (schools, libraries, etc.) declare Good Friday to be a holiday and shut down in observance of that Holy Day, they are very clearly moving from secular celebration to religious observance. That’s something that government isn’t allowed to do. It wouldn’t be an honest argument to claim that Good Friday is just part of some sort of long weekend of a secularized Easter, since Christians obviously must separate Good Friday from Easter enough to want a separate day to observe it. Good Friday is clearly, in practice and by definition, a Christian-only holiday. One that most religions don’t recognize, and some people object to. I don’t want my government telling me or my fellow citizens (whether child or adult) that one religion’s primitive idea of human sacrifice to appease the gods is something to be respected and revered. And the Constitution has my back on this one. Religions can teach this, but governments can’t endorse it by saying Good Friday is a holiday.

Unless The Good Friday Turtle stops by Tennessee, Wisconsin, or elsewhere next year, bringing candies and presents for all, I expect government to drop Good Friday as a holiday and get back to the business of running the country, not promoting religion.

Source of Turtles image: http://www.candyfavorites.com/i/t_3822.jpg and facepalm image: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/facepalm.jpg

Antievolution bill proposed for Missouri schools

Robert Wayne Cooper, a Republican member of the Missouri House of Representatives, has proposed a bill that would require school administrators to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies.”

What scientific controversies, you may ask? According to the bill, this would include “the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization promoting the teaching of evolution in schools, reports on this bill in an article which also gives some background into previous attempts to attack evolution in Missouri. The frustrating thing is that lawmakers are getting craftier in wording such bills. On the surface, the current bill doesn’t sound that bad. According to the proposed legislation,

Teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

Helping students to apply critical thinking in their learning is normally a laudable goal. But what purpose could Rep. Cooper have in mind by singling out evolution in his bill besides a veiled attempt to support the teaching of intelligent design / biblical creationism as an alternative to evolution? Especially in light of his previous efforts to legistlate in the matter, including a 2004 bill which would have mandated “equal time” for evolution and intelligent design, according to the NCSE article. That bill also stipulated that:

Willful neglect of any elementary or secondary school superintendent, principal, or teacher to observe and carry out the requirements of this section shall be cause for termination of his or her contract.

I’m not the first to point out the irony that attempts to slip creationism into the classroom have been “evolving”, but it is both frustrating and worrisome that some government officials are still trying to sneak religion into our classrooms.

Atheist Ireland Publishes 25 Blasphemous Quotes

If I lived in Ireland right now, I couldn’t legally say St. Patrick was responsible for a horrible crime: inflicting Christianity on the Emerld Isle. Image from Wikipedia.

Below is a post from Atheist Ireland, reposted in its entirety in support of their campaign to protest the new blasphemy laws (which I covered previously here). If you believe in freedom of speech and church-state separation in the world, please read this, visit http://blasphemy.ie and spread the word if you support their cause.

From today, 1 January 2010, the new Irish blasphemy law becomes operational, and we begin our campaign to have it repealed. Blasphemy is now a crime punishable by a €25,000 fine. The new law defines blasphemy as publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted.

This new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. And it is dangerous because it incentivises religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at UN level.

We believe in the golden rule: that we have a right to be treated justly, and that we have a responsibility to treat other people justly. Blasphemy laws are unjust: they silence people in order to protect ideas. In a civilised society, people have a right to to express and to hear ideas about religion even if other people find those ideas to be outrageous.

Publication of 25 blasphemous quotes

In this context we now publish a list of 25 blasphemous quotes, which have previously been published by or uttered by or attributed to Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Mark Twain, Tom Lehrer, Randy Newman, James Kirkup, Monty Python, Rev Ian Paisley, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Frank Zappa, Salman Rushdie, Bjork, Amanda Donohoe, George Carlin, Paul Woodfull, Jerry Springer the Opera, Tim Minchin, Richard Dawkins, Pope Benedict XVI, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, Ian O’Doherty, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Dermot Ahern.

Despite these quotes being abusive and insulting in relation to matters held sacred by various religions, we unreservedly support the right of these people to have published or uttered them, and we unreservedly support the right of any Irish citizen to make comparable statements about matters held sacred by any religion without fear of being criminalised, and without having to prove to a court that a reasonable person would find any particular value in the statement.

Campaign begins to repeal the Irish blasphemy law

We ask Fianna Fail and the Green Party to repeal their anachronistic blasphemy law, as part of the revision of the Defamation Act that is included within the Act. We ask them to hold a referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Irish Constitution.

We also ask all TDs and Senators to support a referendum to remove references to God from the Irish Constitution, including the clauses that prevent atheists from being appointed as President of Ireland or as a Judge without swearing a religious oath asking God to direct them in their work.

If you run a website, blog or other media publication, please feel free to republish this statement and the list of quotes yourself, in order to show your support for the campaign to repeal the Irish blasphemy law and to promote a rational, ethical, secular Ireland.

List of 25 Blasphemous Quotes Published by Atheist Ireland

1. Jesus Christ, when asked if he was the son of God, in Matthew 26:64: “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” According to the Christian Bible, the Jewish chief priests and elders and council deemed this statement by Jesus to be blasphemous, and they sentenced Jesus to death for saying it.

2. Jesus Christ, talking to Jews about their God, in John 8:44: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.” This is one of several chapters in the Christian Bible that can give a scriptural foundation to Christian anti-Semitism. The first part of John 8, the story of “whoever is without sin cast the first stone”, was not in the original version, but was added centuries later. The original John 8 is a debate between Jesus and some Jews. In brief, Jesus calls the Jews who disbelieve him sons of the Devil, the Jews try to stone him, and Jesus runs away and hides.

3. Muhammad, quoted in Hadith of Bukhari, Vol 1 Book 8 Hadith 427: “May Allah curse the Jews and Christians for they built the places of worship at the graves of their prophets.” This quote is attributed to Muhammad on his death-bed as a warning to Muslims not to copy this practice of the Jews and Christians. It is one of several passages in the Koran and in Hadith that can give a scriptural foundation to Islamic anti-Semitism, including the assertion in Sura 5:60 that Allah cursed Jews and turned some of them into apes and swine.

4. Mark Twain, describing the Christian Bible in Letters from the Earth, 1909: “Also it has another name – The Word of God. For the Christian thinks every word of it was dictated by God. It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies… But you notice that when the Lord God of Heaven and Earth, adored Father of Man, goes to war, there is no limit. He is totally without mercy – he, who is called the Fountain of Mercy. He slays, slays, slays! All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies; also all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. He makes no distinction between innocent and guilty… What the insane Father required was blood and misery; he was indifferent as to who furnished it.” Twain’s book was published posthumously in 1939. His daughter, Clara Clemens, at first objected to it being published, but later changed her mind in 1960 when she believed that public opinion had grown more tolerant of the expression of such ideas. That was half a century before Fianna Fail and the Green Party imposed a new blasphemy law on the people of Ireland.

5. Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag, 1963: “Get in line in that processional, step into that small confessional. There, the guy who’s got religion’ll tell you if your sin’s original. If it is, try playing it safer, drink the wine and chew the wafer. Two, four, six, eight, time to transubstantiate!”

6. Randy Newman, God’s Song, 1972: “And the Lord said: I burn down your cities – how blind you must be. I take from you your children, and you say how blessed are we. You all must be crazy to put your faith in me. That’s why I love mankind.”

7. James Kirkup, The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, 1976: “While they prepared the tomb I kept guard over him. His mother and the Magdalen had gone to fetch clean linen to shroud his nakedness. I was alone with him… I laid my lips around the tip of that great cock, the instrument of our salvation, our eternal joy. The shaft, still throbbed, anointed with death’s final ejaculation.” This extract is from a poem that led to the last successful blasphemy prosecution in Britain, when Denis Lemon was given a suspended prison sentence after he published it in the now-defunct magazine Gay News. In 2002, a public reading of the poem, on the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, failed to lead to any prosecution. In 2008, the British Parliament abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

8. Matthias, son of Deuteronomy of Gath, in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979: “Look, I had a lovely supper, and all I said to my wife was that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah.”

9. Rev Ian Paisley MEP to the Pope in the European Parliament, 1988: “I denounce you as the Antichrist.” Paisley’s website describes the Antichrist as being “a liar, the true son of the father of lies, the original liar from the beginning… he will imitate Christ, a diabolical imitation, Satan transformed into an angel of light, which will deceive the world.”

10. Conor Cruise O’Brien, 1989: “In the last century the Arab thinker Jamal al-Afghani wrote: ‘Every Muslim is sick and his only remedy is in the Koran.’ Unfortunately the sickness gets worse the more the remedy is taken.”

11. Frank Zappa, 1989: “If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine – but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.”

12. Salman Rushdie, 1990: “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – uncertainty, progress, change – into crimes.” In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie because of blasphemous passages in Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

13. Bjork, 1995: “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men… I’ve been reading about reincarnation, and the Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.”

14. Amanda Donohoe on her role in the Ken Russell movie Lair of the White Worm, 1995: “Spitting on Christ was a great deal of fun. I can’t embrace a male god who has persecuted female sexuality throughout the ages, and that persecution still goes on today all over the world.”

15. George Carlin, 1999: “Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!”

16. Paul Woodfull as Ding Dong Denny O’Reilly, The Ballad of Jaysus Christ, 2000: “He said me ma’s a virgin and sure no one disagreed, Cause they knew a lad who walks on water’s handy with his feet… Jaysus oh Jaysus, as cool as bleedin’ ice, With all the scrubbers in Israel he could not be enticed, Jaysus oh Jaysus, it’s funny you never rode, Cause it’s you I do be shoutin’ for each time I shoot me load.”

17. Jesus Christ, in Jerry Springer The Opera, 2003: “Actually, I’m a bit gay.” In 2005, the Christian Institute tried to bring a prosecution against the BBC for screening Jerry Springer the Opera, but the UK courts refused to issue a summons.

18. Tim Minchin, Ten-foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins, 2005: “So you’re gonna live in paradise, With a ten-foot cock and a few hundred virgins, So you’re gonna sacrifice your life, For a shot at the greener grass, And when the Lord comes down with his shiny rod of judgment, He’s gonna kick my heathen ass.”

19. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, 2006: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” In 2007 Turkish publisher Erol Karaaslan was charged with the crime of insulting believers for publishing a Turkish translation of The God Delusion. He was acquitted in 2008, but another charge was brought in 2009. Karaaslan told the court that “it is a right to criticise religions and beliefs as part of the freedom of thought and expression.”

20. Pope Benedict XVI quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor, 2006: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This statement has already led to both outrage and condemnation of the outrage. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim body, said it was a “character assassination of the prophet Muhammad”. The Malaysian Prime Minister said that “the Pope must not take lightly the spread of outrage that has been created.” Pakistan’s foreign Ministry spokesperson said that “anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence”. The European Commission said that “reactions which are disproportionate and which are tantamount to rejecting freedom of speech are unacceptable.”

21. Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great, 2007: “There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all… Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require… It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or ‘surrender’ as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing-absolutely nothing-in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.”

22. PZ Myers, on the Roman Catholic communion host, 2008: “You would not believe how many people are writing to me, insisting that these horrible little crackers (they look like flattened bits of styrofoam) are literally pieces of their god, and that this omnipotent being who created the universe can actually be seriously harmed by some third-rate liberal intellectual at a third-rate university… However, inspired by an old woodcut of Jews stabbing the host, I thought of a simple, quick thing to do: I pierced it with a rusty nail (I hope Jesus’s tetanus shots are up to date). And then I simply threw it in the trash, followed by the classic, decorative items of trash cans everywhere, old coffeegrounds and a banana peel.”

23. Ian O’Doherty, 2009: “(If defamation of religion was illegal) it would be a crime for me to say that the notion of transubstantiation is so ridiculous that even a small child should be able to see the insanity and utter physical impossibility of a piece of bread and some wine somehow taking on corporeal form. It would be a crime for me to say that Islam is a backward desert superstition that has no place in modern, enlightened Europe and it would be a crime to point out that Jewish settlers in Israel who believe they have a God given right to take the land are, frankly, mad. All the above assertions will, no doubt, offend someone or other.”

24. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, 2009: “Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact in my view something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent… we call it God… I think that if you leave that out you are not fully human.” Because atheism is not a religion, the Irish blasphemy law does not protect atheists from abusive and insulting statements about their fundamental beliefs. While atheists are not seeking such protection, we include the statement here to point out that it is discriminatory that this law does not hold all citizens equal.

25. Dermot Ahern, Irish Minister for Justice, introducing his blasphemy law at an Oireachtas Justice Committee meeting, 2009, and referring to comments made about him personally: “They are blasphemous.” Deputy Pat Rabbitte replied: “Given the Minister’s self-image, it could very well be that we are blaspheming,” and Minister Ahern replied: “Deputy Rabbitte says that I am close to the baby Jesus, I am so pure.” So here we have an Irish Justice Minister joking about himself being blasphemed, at a parliamentary Justice Committee discussing his own blasphemy law, that could make his own jokes illegal.

Finally, as a bonus, Micheal Martin, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, opposing attempts by Islamic States to make defamation of religion a crime at UN level, 2009: “We believe that the concept of defamation of religion is not consistent with the promotion and protection of human rights. It can be used to justify arbitrary limitations on, or the denial of, freedom of expression. Indeed, Ireland considers that freedom of expression is a key and inherent element in the manifestation of freedom of thought and conscience and as such is complementary to freedom of religion or belief.” Just months after Minister Martin made this comment, his colleague Dermot Ahern introduced Ireland’s new blasphemy law.

Barker visit, Part 2: roundup and personal reaction

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Here is Part 2 of my roundup on Dan Barker’s visit on December 3 in Memphis. In this part, I’ll mention a few more highlights as well as my personal reaction and thoughts. For Part I, click here. For an excellent recap of the Dan Barker event, read Oliver’s post (oliver_poe on Twitter) on the Mississippi Atheists website.

I’ve already mentioned in my first post much of his talk about state-church separation, so I will focus on other aspects here. Perhaps the most notable thing about Dan Barker’s talk was the fact that it was a fair-minded plea for state-church separation, filled with anecdotes, examples, and humor that could appeal to both believers and non-believers. While Barker does also talk on things such as Biblical errancy, his goal in this talk was not to promote an atheist agenda but speak on state-church issues.

A nice example of this were Dan’s arguments defending religious believers. (No, that is not a typo.) Unlike the exaggerated image of angry, close-minded atheists held by some believers (and too often painted in the media), Dan Barker made it very clear at several points that religious people do a lot of good in the world.

One believer argued during the Q & A that humans by nature are not altruistic, that we are selfish and introverted by nature. Barker countered that humans are actually very social animals, and that being empathetic and altruistic comes naturally to people. Barker said that Christians, believers of different faiths, as well as nonbelievers, are just as good and kind at heart. Because of this, he argued the human qualities of kindness and generosity “transcend” religion. Instead of just attacking religion, Barker was trying to find common ground among believers and non-believers.

Dan Barker also made it clear that he does not think that the government should go on the offensive against religion, just keep religion out of government. He cited the example of the much-mediatized solstace plaques that have been placed in a few state capitals (including Olympia, Washington; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin). The plaques, which state among other things that “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell” are only placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to Christmas displays in state capitals.

In response to a questioner about the goal of such plaques, Barker made it clear that they are actually pleased when governments choose to ban all displays during the holiday season, which is what happened in Olympia after the FFRF’s plaque spurred a number of groups to post displays in addition to the Christmas one. Barker argued that banning these diplays was a victory since there shouldn’t be “religion OR irreligion” (emphasis his) in government buildings, including religious prayers.

He argued that non-believers deserve just as much protection as belivers both in Memphis and nationally. Using national statitics, he argued that few politicans would openly come out with policies that would discriminate against Jews, who represent a little over 1% of the population, while many politicians openly oppose atheists and agnostics, who represent between 9-10% of the population. The Memphis City Council, like all government bodies, should represent and support the rights of all citizens, not just believers. Instead of having Christian or other religious prayers at its meetings, the Council should neither support nor attack any religion. (As an atheist, he likened the situation of seeing councilmembers praying to seeing an airline pilot pray. A pilot should be confident in his flying skills, not asking for outside help to fly the plane. Barker joked that if he saw a pilot praying before take-off, he’d get right off the plane.)

Barker also mentioned the Founding Fathers, at a number of junctures: something that believers often do while trying to defend religious incursions into government. Barker mentioned the Jefferson Bible, for which Jefferson literally cut out with a pair of scissors all of the superstitious (miracles, etc.) parts of the New Testament. He said that while some founders were Christians, most were Deists who wanted religion separate from government. He said that as a believer, he used to think of the Pilgrims and Founders as being related to each other, when in reality they were separated by over 100 years and religious beliefs.

In order to address the fact that the Founders didn’t put the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution (Jefferson wrote this in a letter), Barker said that the concept is there even if the phrase isn’t. He gave other examples of phrases that aren’t in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that have become commonplace descriptions of the ideas found there: the words “Bill of Rights“, “interstate commerce“, “separation of powers“, and “checks and balances” also are not in the constitution either, but you don’t hear religious people criticizing those who talk about the Bill of Rights saying there is not such thing.

Barker did not completely spare religious teachings in his talk, however. There were a few critiques about religion, the majority of which were in direct response to questions attacking church-state separation or atheism. Dan Barker poked fun at the creation story in the Bible, which includes a talking snake (Barker, who is part Native American, mentioned that his tribe also had a snake myth). He also mentioned that Jesus clearly supports slavery in the New Testament, using it as an example in his parables (saying you should beat some slaves less than others) instead of speaking out against it.

Barker mentioned that Jefferson famously said that finding good in the Bible was like trying to find “diamonds in a dunghill.” Barker also defended his right in the public sphere to say that he finds the teachings of Christianity, and the Christian god, to be morally offensive, in particular the idea that humans are by nature unclean and sinful. He said that real life debunks this notion, that we see headlines of criminals in the paper (of which religious leaders aren’t exempt, he pointed out) because they are exceptions to the norm. If that’s how everyone was, then it wouldn’t be news. He also cited studies have shown that countries that are generally areligious, such as Nordic countries, often rank as the happiest and least plagued by crime and other social problems.

There is more I could comment on, but I think that sums up the main points of interest about the talk that weren’t covered in my first post or Oliver’s post.

I have a personal confession to make: I am somewhat of an admirer of Dan Barker. I was very religious when I was younger, and can identify with Dan Barker’s journey from belief to unbelief. My grandmother thought I would be good pastor material, and I seriously considered becoming a pastor. So when I first heard about Dan Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, his story really hit home with me. I’ve read his book godless, am a faithful (or faithless) listener of Freethought Radio, and have listened to and viewed many of his talks and debates online. So I was very much looking forward to seeing what he had to say about the Memphis situation, and state-church separation in general.

After the talk, I waited in line to meet Dan Barker. He talked to me briefly and was very personable both to me and the people who were in line ahead of me (he even gave out a free copy of his book to someone!). I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and I mentioned to him that I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had a bookmark “Imagine No Religion“, which FFRF had sent me for free when I ordered his book from them. I showed it to him and the person next to me said she thought at first I was trying to give him a religious tract!

Since I am not “out” as an atheist, except to my wife, standing in line in a public venue to meet Dan Barker and have him sign a book entitled “godless” for me was a big, and somewhat frightening, step for me. While I did not come out and say “I am an atheist”, it was the closest I’ve ever come to be open about my atheism in person. I told him my name for him to sign it, but I don’t think anyone there knew or recognized me, so I guess I am still officially in the closet for now. Dan Barker was wearing an “A” pin, part of the Richard Dawkins coming out campaign for atheists. Maybe someday soon I will feel comfortable enough with friends and family, and secure enough in my job, to be an open atheist, too.

Memphis does work “in Jesus’ name”, in violation of Constitution


Image Source: Tennessee Department of Tourism Development

Memphis, TN is the latest city to come under scrutiny for invocations “in Jesus’ name” at City Council sessions. The Memphis City Council joins a growing list of institutions which the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent complaints to due to their unconstitutional endorsement of religion during official government business.

It is fairly common practice for city councils in the United States to open their sessions with an “invocation”. The Supreme Court has held that such invocations must non-denominational in nature. In other words, a government institution is not supposed to pray to Jesus or Mohammad, or favor one congregation or another, since this would appear to be supporting one religion over another and promoting belief over unbelief.

In practice, invocations at government meetings all too often turn into openly Christian prayers. Such practices clearly go against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (which Thomas Jefferson described as “a wall of separation between Church and State”). As a resident of the Mid-South, I am sad to say that Memphis is unfortunately no exception.

Here are some examples of objectionable quotes and occurrences at Memphis City Council meetings this year which clearly seem to show the city choosing sides in religion. From FFRF’s News Release and letter of complaint ,

  • The Memphis City Council, at each of its general meetings, names an official “Chaplain of the Day”, giving them a certificate and a “goody bag” of gifts that includes cuff links.
  • Repeated references to praying “Jesus’ name” during and at the end of invocations, clearly showing a preference for Christianity.
  • A call by one Chaplain of the Day on June 2nd saying that “These legislative leaders you have allowed to sit at the table of decision now acknowledge the inability within themselves to fix these ills of society and they now recognize and depend on your sufficiency,” followed later by the Lord’s Prayer.
  • A quote from Psalms saying that “The Lord knows the ways of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish,” ending the invocation by saying “in the name of Jesus Christ we pray”.

These examples, among many others like them, clearly show that the Memphis City Council is not only preferring religion over non-religion, but Christianity over other faiths. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that invocational prayers at government meetings cannot be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith, or belief” (Marsh v. Chambers , as quoted by FFRF). Under this ruling, the invocations cited by FFRF clearly seem to violate the Constitution.

I also have looked into this somewhat (audio archives of all Memphis City Council meetings can be found at http://memphis.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2 ), and it’s clear that city council members are not only aware of these unconstitutional appeals to Christianity made by the Chaplains of the Day (who the City Council officially names), but council members sometimes even praise the Chaplains after making such statements.

The message is clear: as far as the council is concerned, Memphis is a Christian city. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Memphis, or any other city, should not be pushing anyone’s religion on city time and on the city’s dime. Just as churchgoers would not want council members to go into churches to make sermons about city ordinances, why should civic-minded Jews, Buddhists, or atheists be subjected to Christian dogma at city council meetings?

Memphis City Council joins the list of other government bodies (The Wisconsin Assembly and the city councils of Toledo, OH and Lodi, CA , among others) caught mixing religion with official business. It will be interesting to see what Memphis’ response to these clear violations will be. I’ll be sure to post any updates to this story as I find out about them.

I Am … (partially) out as an atheist

Imagine (Original Soundtrack)

I finally had "the talk" with my wife. It was very difficult to do, but it turned out a lot better than I had expected.

I had been considering coming out to her for the past month or so. I’m becoming more and more active in the atheist/freethought community. It just didn’t feel right for something that is such a big part of who I am to remain a secret from my wife. I’m posting this in hopes that the experience might help others who aren’t "out" yet to their wife/husband/significant other. I’m glad to say that coming out to your loved one doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

[UPDATE : This post is a play-by-play, which I’m hoping will be interesting and useful. A more concise version of my story can also be found here on Atheist Nexus.]

My decision to come out was helped along by a discussion from a less successful experience by a fellow Atheist Nexus member. His wife flat-out told him that she wouldn’t have married him if she had known he didn’t believe in God. I felt very sorry for him, especially since I’ve been fearing a similar reaction from my wife (who considers herself a Christian) if and when she found out I didn’t believe in God. So although I’d like to say I bravely announced my atheism, it was much less courage and more of a desire to deal with something that’s been worrying me for quite a while and a decision to be more open with my wife about my non-belief.

I was very nervous the night I had decided to come out to her. She could tell I was nervous, which made it a little easier to bring up the subject. If she can tell something’s bothering me, she’ll keep asking me what’s wrong until I tell her. So when there was a good moment that I knew we could talk for as long as we wanted, I told her there was something very important to me that I’d like to tell her about.We sat down, I took a deep breath, and just started talking. I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, but no specific speech written out.

She saw me reading the Bible a few weeks ago on my computer, which surprised her. So I started with this incident, saying that over a number of years, I have read a lot about the Bible, read a lot of the passages, and reminded her that for a while I had considered going to seminary to become a pastor. I told her that the more I had read, the more I started to have questions about some of the things the Bible said. I said that I had come to the conclusion that there were some things in the Bible that I just couldn’t believe — things that either didn’t make sense, or that contradicted other things, or that didn’t seem like they could happen. I told her that a lot of what I’ve been doing online lately has been related to this.

After this introduction to the topic, it was mostly she who led the conversation, with her asking questions and me answering. She asked me what sort of things I didn’t think were true. I asked if she remembered our nephew’s baptism, when we talked about whether or not to get him a Noah’s Ark book (she did). I didn’t tell her I was an atheist at the time, but had told her that the Bible doesn’t teach child baptism and that I felt children should be old enough to make up their minds before being baptized (a position she disagreed with, but understood). I said that I felt the Noah’s Ark passage in the Bible, like others, basically says that all people are evil by nature, and that God can kill them because of this.

I said I don’t believe humans are bad by nature, and that I didn’t like that this is what the Bible teaches. I then moved on to another example, and said I didn’t like what the Bible says happened in Egypt, where God kills all the firstborn male Egyptians just because the Pharaoh wouldn’t free the Israelites, even though the Bible says God was the one who made the Pharaoh act that way. I didn’t want to say too much to make it seem like I was just trying to rip apart the Bible, but I wanted to bring up a few specific instances that I thought she would be familiar with, and that I could make a clear argument about why I didn’t agree with them.

She didn’t dispute any of this, but said that there are parts of the Bible she doesn’t understand and like as much as other parts, but that she liked the New Testament better and that she thought it had a good message in it. I said I agreed that the Bible does have some very good messages in it, but that they are often surrounded by messages that are not so good that people don’t quote or talk about much. I brought up the massacre of the innocents sermon that I had blogged about earlier as an example of something bad that happened in the New Testament. I said I couldn’t understand why a loving God would let all those children be killed. She said that she didn’t know what to say, but that maybe that was the best thing that could have happened, that maybe that prevented something worse from happening. So I said that if God were able to do anything he wanted, I believe that he could have found a way around it.

Interestingly enough, she brought up at this point the fact that there was a lot of evidence for the stuff that happened in the New Testament, which I wasn’t expecting. I said that unfortunately, it isn’t always true that the Bible’s claims can be verified outside the Bible. Confirmation for some of the events in the New Testament comes over a hundred years later, and no independent evidence of a large amount of things in the New Testament has ever been found, such as for the massacre of the innocents.

At this point, she shifted gears. I don’t know if it’s because she realized that I had done a lot of looking into the Bible, or if my answers were satisfying her, or if they weren’t satisfying but she didn’t know how to respond. But then she asked me what I do believe if I don’t believe everything in the Bible. This was the question that I was the most afraid of. I told her that I used to be a very strong believer, much stronger than other people in my family. I gave the example of thinking songs shouldn’t be played because they were "lustful" (the Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" was one song in particular), I told her I was confirmed, and then eventually I started to have little questions about my faith. Instead of finding answers, from looking at the Bible, looking online, listening to sermons, asking people, I just kept having more questions. Eventually, I realized there were some things I would never find answers to.

She asked me if I believed in the Bible at all, and I said that there are too many things in it that I don’t agree with, that I can’t say I believe in the Bible anymore. She then asked what I thought happens to people when they die. I think the atheist answer to this is very unsatisfying; I would like to believe something happens to us after death, but I know now that this isn’t so. This sounded depressing, so I thought for a few moments and said that I believe that we are all part of the circle of life, and that when we die our remains go back into nature, and life continues from there. This is not a main aspect of my belief system, but I do believe this occurs and I felt was a more satisfying answer than just "we cease to exist".

She asked if I believed in heaven. I told her that while I think it would be nice to think that heaven exists, I more have a problem with the fact that Christianity teaches that there’s a hell — that even though Jesus was said to die for our sins that there are still people who go to hell. I think that if there was a God and if he loved us, he would send us all to heaven. So at this point, I asked her one of the few questions I asked all night. I asked if she thought that people who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell.

My wife obviously had thought about the issue before, and said that she didn’t know what happens to people who don’t believe. She said that some people think that if you don’t believe in Christianity, then you go to hell, but other people think that if you’re a good person, that you’ll be saved even if you don’t believe in God. She brought up the issue of what happened to people who never heard of Jesus before, which I was glad to hear that she had heard of and considered before. She mentioned that Catholics believe in purgatory, so just because you don’t go to heaven doesn’t mean you go to hell. She said she wasn’t sure what happens, and that there were other things that she wasn’t sure about, but that she still has faith in God.

This was the only thing that frustrated me during the conversation. She used the word "faith" a couple of times basically when there was something that she couldn’t explain. I realized that she doesn’t know that having faith in something isn’t really an answer, since I’m sure she’s heard this thousands of times in her life. I felt she thought this was a perfectly acceptable answer, so I though it would be counterproductive to try to tackle the issue of faith then. So I told her that I respect her beliefs and that I’m not trying to say that she’s wrong, but just that based on the Bible, on what I’ve read, and what I’ve thought about for a long time, I don’t have faith anymore. I did not say I’m an "atheist", because of the baggage attached to this term. But she knows now that I don’t believe in God.

She had said a few times recently that I "don’t like church", so I asked her why she said this. She said that she could tell from some comments I made. I asked her what these were (since I had tried very hard not to make any such comments!), and she brought up the Noah’s Ark incident that I had mentioned earlier, and the fact that I made comments about the Catholic Church after the tragic child rape / excommunication case that was in the news (where they excommunicated a mother and her daughter’s doctors for giving the girl an abortion after she had been raped by her stepfather. They did not excommunicate the father, however.) I also apparently mentioned at some point about religious displays on public property being against the constitution, which I might have thought was a safe topic to bring up since there are many believers who also think religion should be kept out of government.

I told her I wasn’t "against" churches, but that I just didn’t believe in some of the things they taught. She mentioned that churches do good things, and I said that while I know that churches and people who go to church do a lot of good things, you can do these same things without going to church — you don’t need to believe in the Bible to be a good person. She didn’t argue with this. I then asked her if she remembered the fact that I brought up the fact that the town we used to live in had an intersection of "Church and State", and I had told her it was my favorite intersection. She said yes and she said she thought that was another clue. So I guess she had suspected for quite a while, but just didn’t know exactly where on the spectrum I was.

The only time religion really came up between us, except for the Noah’s Ark occasion, was a few months after we met. I had told her that I was brought up a Lutheran, that I had considered becoming a pastor. I had read a whole lot about religion, and I wasn’t sure what I believed, but I was pretty sure what I didn’t believe. She had never asked me to elaborate on this. She’s a Christian, and even did some missionary work when she was younger, but in the years I’ve known her, I don’t think she’s ever brought up God just out of the blue — both before the Noah’s Ark thing and afterwards, and even when she’s with other believers. I hoped that this was a good sign, and since things turned out well, I think it was.

She had revealed a secret to me early on in our relationship, and I told her that I had a secret too that I would tell her someday. I told her this was the secret. She said "That was it?! I thought it was something more serious than that!" I laughed and I told her it was kind of funny then, because I thought she would think it was a big deal. She said she may not agree with me, but she respects it. She then asked if I mind if she goes to church.

This was another thing that the Atheist Nexus thread I mentioned earlier helped with. One of the commenters mentioned Unitarian Universalism as a possibility for atheists with companions who still want to go to church, and it’s something I had looked at from time to time. I had a friend who had said he had gone to a UU church. I didn’t tell him much about much beliefs (or lack thereof) on Christianity since I was afraid he would tell others, but I did tell him that I wasn’t a typical Christian. He had liked it overall, so I looked into UU again after reading the post on Atheist Nexus.

When my wife brought up church, I told her that I would be willing to consider going to a UU church. I don’t believe in going to church — since I don’t believe in God, I don’t see the need of going to church. But I know church is something that is very important to my wife, so I told her I would be willing to try it. She said she had heard of UU, and I explained a little more of what I understood about it. I said that I liked the fact that they welcome people who have all sorts of beliefs there, but that they were generally based on a Judeo-Christian model and that a lot of people who come from different denominations go to UU to find a common ground.

I found a couple of UU churches online the next day, sent the links to her and we separately looked at them. We both looked at other ones as well, and we both decided on the same one, which I thought was a very good sign. We went to the first service this weekend, and overall I was pleased with how it went. The service started with a welcome to newcomers, which was very warm and funny; a thoughtful and at times funny sermon that my wife and I said we both enjoyed; and included several Christian hymns that we both recognized, with some altered lyrics. My wife said this  after the service, and it was funny because even the pastor pointed it out that for the one hymn, he would understand if some people accidentally did the old lyrics since he liked those, too.

Although there were a couple of things on the website I find mildly objectionable, and I don’t feel comfortable with the mentions of God, even if I understand it’s not meant in the same way that it would be in a Baptist church for example, there was nothing in the service that I found objectionable (no "massacre of the innocents" moment, for example). The pastor mentioned non-belief and embracing doubt several times in his sermon, even though from references in church and on the site, it seems clear he believes in some sort of higher power personally. I very highly disagreed with this, but thought the repeated nods to doubt and non-belief in a God were good and inclusive, and I was glad in a way that God was mentioned since I thought this would be more welcoming to my wife. I was worried after the service because of what I would deem, with no offense meant to any UU followers, to be a "watered down" version of God, as compared to the one mentioned in Christianiaty. But my wife said she really liked the service and would like to go again.

Not only that, but she thanked me for going to church with her. I didn’t think she would thank me for asking her to go to a different church that she grew up in and did missionary work in. I think she very much likes the fact that I’m willing to go to church, and since she doesn’t bring up God herself very often she might be interested in more than just the God speak found in many services (she’s mentioned before that she really likes church music, so familiar hymns probably helped).

In turn, I thanked her for being willing to try out a different church that’s more inclusive of people. She mentioned some of the elements of the service that were like other churches she had been at, so I thought it was good that we were both trying to find common ground. She said that the sermon and other parts of the service seemed like it would be more my kind of thing than other churches we’ve gone to probably were, and I said I agreed. Hopefully we will both get something out of it.

I wouldn’t say I’m a UU, I don’t believe in a god of any kind, and I don’t think all atheists would be comfortable about this solution, but I think it will work for us for now. I would like to imagine a day where no one feels the need to talk about god, heaven, or hell, but that day is far off. For now, I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders and that I don’t have to keep my stance on religion secret from my wife, and she gets to go to church. Since we disagree, I won’t go out of my way to bring up various things I disagree with, but if she asks I feel like I can talk with her openly about it.

My coworkers and other family are another story. My grandmother just retired as church secretary after decades of service, and my future sister-in-law is becoming a pastor in about year, to give you an idea of some of the believers in my and my wife’s family. My mother seems to be becoming more religious and not less. Plus, I’m in a profession that does not lend itself to religious discussion in theory, although it comes up surprisingly often. Two of my coworkers have discussed religion with me — one very religious and one not very religious at all — and I’ve tried to be as vague as possible on my own views to avoid any problems down the road.

So for family and professional reasons, I’m not coming out to the whole world just yet, although someday I hope to do so. Hopefully this post will help someone who also hasn’t told their significant other yet about their atheism: it doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

I will continue posting and seeking out atheist news under my assumed name for now. I am out to the most important person for me now, which was a very huge step.

Anointing the Senate

How did this guy get in to "anoint" the room where Sotomayor ‘s confirmation hearings will occur? This happened at or soon before the beginning of June, based on when the reports (Christian Broadcasting Network , Huffington Post , etc.) started appearing about this, although I haven’t found any site that gives an exact date. It’s not news (I’d heard about it from a few places), but coming across the actual video upsets and frustrates me.

I doubt they let anyone just wander the halls without going through security first, which means someone must have decided it was okay for him to bring in oil to perform a religious ceremony in the Senate.

Will they be letting other religions perform ceremonies on this room? Will atheists get a right to speak and film outside this door? I would doubt it, but I’ll post any updates I find on this. So much for no establishment of religion.